The North Platte River weaves its way through ranch land and prairie as it flows east past Glenrock on its way to Nebraska.
On the northern side, property owners have bartered contracts with energy companies seeking uranium, coal bed methane and oil and gas. The abundance of Wyoming’s natural resources pays for schools and county buildings. It also provides the economic fuel that many ranchers need to keep their agricultural business afloat.
Rick Grant’s family ranch sits on the south side of the river. There are no companies drilling for oil and gas here. But the land is home to 15 wind turbines.
“It’s been a good thing for our family and our ranch and diversified our income,” he said.
The Pioneer Wind Park south of Glenrock ignited a fury of concerns over wind power in Wyoming. Its location worried raptor and eagle lovers who feared a death trap. The turbines angered neighboring landowners who wanted to protect the pristine beauty of the rolling hills that run to the northern edge of the Laramie range.
Supporters like Grant took a lot of heat for building the turbines, and spent years fighting before wind power flowed out of Glenrock.
But it’s been years since a consequential number of the unmistakable steel towers took root in the state’s soil, stoking local animosity and statewide debate. That could change. Soon, the biggest wind farms Wyomingites have ever seen will rise over the landscape in the Shirley Basin. As before, whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.
“I think Wyoming is behind the curve,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, a firm believer in increasing Wyoming’s one-of-a-kind wind tax ahead of the wind boom. “Not realizing how imminent this is and how big it is.”
The coming boom
Over the next five to seven years, Jonathan Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming, expects as much as 5,000 megawatts of new wind power could take form in Wyoming. That’s three times the amount of power potential in Wyoming’s current fleet of wind projects.
The wave of wind is going to come fast, and like Case, Naughton thinks it may surprise people. What’s happening now in Wyoming has been a long time coming, he said.
In two years, a federal subsidy for wind production will end. Developers have to keep construction active on a new wind farm, or prove they’ve spent 5 percent of the overall cost of a project, in order to keep those credits for a period beyond the sunset date. In short, developers are scrambling to take advantage.
With the expiration date of the federal tax credits looming, what would have happened anyway in Wyoming is speeding up, Naughton said.
“Utilities want wind these days,” he said. “Not because of environmental policy. They want it because it’s cheap.”
But with such an interest in Wyoming, the question bandied about by lawmakers is how to harness wind development to the state’s benefit. Wyoming has a tax on wind production, unlike nearly every other state. Since its introduction, wind development in Wyoming has fallen off. While a rather small farm, Pioneer, was the hottest wind story in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana’s wind footprint was doubling. North Dakota now obtains about 30 percent of its power from wind.
Naughton isn’t sure that the wind tax alone is why Wyoming fell behind. At the time, transmission capacity to carry power outside of the state was full. Electricity demand has remained flat for years. It was the perfect storm, he said.
The lingering problem with the wind tax, Naughton said, is the uncertainty.
“As long as they keep bringing it up, it continues to have an effect,” he said.
The perennial debate
On a Friday during the recent legislative session, the yearly attempt to hike Wyoming’s wind tax failed. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Madden, R- Buffalo and Case, the Lander Republican, went down with a host of bills without reaching the floor for debate. It was tense budget session and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper, blocked a number of bills that day.
But, the lack of traction on wind taxes predates Harshman’s tenure as speaker. The bill’s predecessors have failed one by one.
Madden, one of the most consistent voices favoring wind taxes, recently announced his decision not to run again. That leaves Case to carry the torch.
Taxes are Cale’s biggest beef with wind. The current tax, $1 per megawatt hour, is not enough to pay back Wyoming for what it’s losing, he said.
With fossil fuels, like coal, Wyoming sets aside some of money from taxes in a permanent mineral trust fund. The idea is that severing valuable products from Wyoming now robs future generations of those resources, so taxes compensate for that.
Wind should be similar, particular when everyone is talking about economic diversification as fossil fuels face uncertainty, Cale argues.
“Like it or not, we have to have something to replace our tax base,” he said. “Clearly coal is going away.”
Despite being consistently blocked in his and Madden’s push for increasing the tax, Case said he will simply try again next year.
In the meantime, he’s looking for ways to bypass a hesitant Legislature and appeal to voters. He thinks he can garner enough support for a citizens’ initiative. Case is also reaching out to opinion writers that raise concerns about wind in the media and is trying to convince members of Wyoming’s Republican party to get behind a tax increase.
“There is just a lot on the table right now,” Case said. “I don’t think people even understand that these projects multiply the number of turbines that we have now.”
Standing on a ridge south of Rawlins, Bill Miller was dwarfed by the spectacle below him, 500 square miles of sinks and canyons, reservoirs winking in the distance and elk moving slowly through a stand of trees.
But what Miller, president of Power Company of Wyoming, sees is the largest onshore wind farm in the United States.
Chokecherry and Sierra Madre turbines, roads, pads and transmission lines will only cover a fraction of that total project area, but by its finish, the farm will add as many as 1,000 turbines to Wyoming’s fleet, doubling the amount of wind currently in the state.
“We like to do things of consequence,” Miller said of Anschutz, the parent company of Power Company of Wyoming. “It must have some scope and scale to it before we get into it.”
Miller grew up on a ranch in central Wyoming and spent his adult life traveling the world for Anschutz as a land man in the oil and gas industry.
He acknowledges that is seems odd for a fossil fuel company to throw its money into green energy. But Miller said he believes in it, in wind, in the project and in the demand for Wyoming’s renewable resource.
“If you put on your long distance glasses and look out there, renewable energy is about a good opportunity as you are going to find in the natural resource business,” he said.
“It’s painful, painful as hell getting there, but we’ve got to do it, because one, society wants it. Two, it’s become incredibly efficient and economic.”
The company proposed the wind farm nearly 10 years ago. The estimated $8 billion project has been slowed by an arduous process of permitting on federal, state and private land, both for the wind farm near Rawlins and the TransWest Express transmission line that will allow power to flow all the way to buyers in the desert southwest.
As time has dragged on, some have questioned whether the Chokecherry project will come to fruition, whether it will be another Wyoming story like Two Elk— which started as an innovative coal venture more than 20 years ago and ended recently with little work done.
Miller said he understands the suspicion.
“We’re very private,” he said. “So people really don’t know us and it’s important that they do get to know us. They need to know that we do what we say we’re going to do, whether it’s in the community, in the business world or whatever.”
Chokecherry has finally begun construction. Its transmission line is permitted, though the company is still securing the variety of smaller permits and right-of-ways necessary. It will have to keep construction continuous in order to qualify for the sunsetting federal tax credits.
The first half of the wind farm, and a lower capacity version of the transmission line, are expected to be operational by 2021.
In that time frame other wind farms are expected as well. Rocky Mountain Power is building three wind farms, a total of 1,150 megawatts of new power. It’s also repowering its current fleet, putting in bigger blades to capture more potential energy. Viridis Eolia, a Venezuelan company with a proposed 800-turbine farm outside Medicine Bow, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Last year, Viridis bought Medicine Bow’s empty school, a large brick building off State Highway 487, for an operations center in Wyoming.
Nearly 100 miles from Rick Grant’s 15 wind towers, and just up the highway from Chokecherry Sierra Madre, the Vivion sisters are having wind troubles.
More specifically, they are fighting Rocky Mountain Power’s attempt to lay a transmission line across one of their pastures.
It’s not a large pasture, or a flat one. It’s a craggy, riveted piece of land that rises in steep slopes and then drops suddenly near the railroad. A well that the sisters’ father built lies where Rocky Mountain Power wants to lay a transmission line, part of the company’s massive wind build out before federal tax credits sunset. The pasture, the sisters argue, is a hub for their operation.
They don’t want to put their water at risk.
Kristen Thompson, president of the Rocky Mountain Sheep Co. said she’s not anti-wind, echoing a refrain heard from many Wyomingites who find themselves standing in the way of the wind boom. She doesn’t begrudge Miller, up the road, or ranchers in other parts of the county who see an opportunity to make money off the wind boom.
But, she doesn’t want all this development at the expense of her family’s water well, which if damaged from blasting, from electricity current, from overheating, would take the pasture out of commission, she said.
Rocky Mountain Power came out to the ranch on May 7 and measured the land with GPS. A spokesman for the utility said the transmission line would not directly impact the well, the reservoir or the ranch’s storage tank.
Given that the ranch owners disagree with the utility’s assessment, the company will “explore the possibility of shifting the alignment once Rocky Mountain Sheep Company provides our project team access to the ranch to assess the challenging terrain and conduct necessary environmental surveys to determine if shifting the alignment is feasible,” Spencer Hall, spokesman for the utility, said in an email.
If an agreement cannot be reached, the company will consider compensation and mitigation, he said.
Thompson said she’s hopeful, but that it took nearly a year before the utility took their complaint seriously. There isn’t much the ranch can do. The sisters prefer to keep their pasture free from risk over money to compensate for the loss. But, they have fought this battle before the Wyoming Public Service Commission and lost.
“We might be acceptable causalities,” Thompson said. “But I hope that’s not how Rocky Mountain Power or anybody else thinks of it.”
In Wyoming, wind stories change person by person, ranch by ranch. Though the footprint of wind energy could grow substantially in the Cowboy State, those affected are largely located in a band that starts down in Rawlins and ends in Converse County: from the Vivion sisters’ pasture to Grant’s.
Back in Glenrock, the wind royalties on Grant’s property have built three miles of new fence and restored a barn built in 1900.
With a contract that lasts about 60 years, the wind will keep driving revenue into the ranch long after he’s gone, Grant said.
“I haven’t had to sell my property because I can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “I will never be able to raise as much cattle or make as much hay as that wind turbine will make over the next 30 years.”
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner